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In our search for identity we must overcome the identitarian.

26. March 2019
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In 1982, the American film director Woody Allen released Zelig, his eleventh movie in the director’s chair. It is a so-called mockumentary – a fictitious story shot in the form of a documentary. The hero of the film, set in the 1920s and 1930s, is the New York office worker Leonard Zelig, who desires nothing more than to be liked by others and therefore adapts his personality to suit the group he happens to be with at any given time.

As a boy, the child of Jewish bourgeois parents was bullied by anti-Semites. His parents blame him for this. Zelig consequently deals with this through assimilation and self-denial. In his review of the film, the German critic Hellmuth Karasek described this as a widespread phenomenon: “Zelig,” he writes, “is one of those people who believe they can only maintain their identity by constantly denying it.”[1] We see Zelig become an Orthodox rabbi himself when among Orthodox rabbis, his stomach grows when he is among obese people, and his skin color changes in a jazz club. He becomes a media phenomenon, but has to flee the country after accusations of polygamy, ending up in Nazi Germany of all places. His psychiatrist and girlfriend Eudora Fetcher ultimately sees Zelig in a newsreel posing as an SA man next to Adolf Hitler. She rescues Zelig from this situation and together they escape and return to the USA. Logically, Leonard Zelig’s total opportunism results in a happy ending.

Identity politics is about respect and recogniction.

Allen’s satire appeared at the right time. Long-established certainties were being thrown off-kilter. The 1960s and 1970s brought an unprecedented degree of diversity and complexity to an increasingly affluent society. In the wake of the American civil rights movement and the events of 1968, the term later known as identity politics emerged. In the first instance, it was about respect and recognition as well as appreciation and the ending of discrimination and exclusion. Afro-Americans, Native Americans, gays, lesbians, and members of minority groups of all kinds developed a cultural identity, a sense of togetherness.

Tipping Point Talk 01: Identity

In 2019, Erste Bank and Sparkassen, as well as ERSTE Foundation celebrate 200 years of the savings bank idea, which, in times of industrialisation and urbanisation, was not only civic-minded and economically viable but also innovative and audacious. Are there still lessons to be learned from the savings bank concept in 2019?

The journalist and author Wolf Lotter contributes four essays to the topics of the 2019 event series Tipping Point Talks: identity, normativity, possibility and audacity. In this text he reflects on identity.

Identity was now always both: inclusion and exclusion; belonging and distancing oneself from others. No notice was taken of anything that was not different. At the same time, this disrupted the idea one culture, one community, one group, one normality. Or one nation and one world order. The resulting confusion proved to be long-lasting. The release of Zelig coincided with the beginning of the end of a world order that had shaped the world’s identity after 1945 – that of the Cold War.

In the East, workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk went on strike in 1980, marking the start of what culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall almost a decade later. In the West, on the other hand, the reaction to the new confusion over old identities took a different form: Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1979. Ronald Reagan followed two years later in the USA and then came Helmut Kohl one year after that in the Federal Republic of Germany. The conservatives were expected to get to grips with the identity crisis. Incidentally, Reagan did this with the motto “Let´s make America great again” – Donald Trump cannot take the credit for inventing this.

When the Cold War ended, the identity crisis heated up – and the temperature continues to rise to this day. This was thoroughly predictable. Making reference to the USA in connection with the end of the Cold War, Samuel P. Huntington quoted the Roman general Sulla. In 84 BC, after Rome had eliminated all its opponents, he posed the following question: “Now that we no longer have any enemies in the world, what will be the fate of the republic?” One year before the end of the Cold War, the publicist Charles Krauthammer described the status quo of the impending identity crisis: “Nations need enemies. Take away one, and they find another“.[2]

Is there a notion of how different identities can coexist so that they don’t necessarily see themselves as enemies or opposing forces? Does every attempt at differentiation have to be followed by dissociation and exclusion? These are key questions concerning any deliberation on the subject of identity.

When the Cold War ended, the identity crisis heated up – and the temperature continues to rise to this day.

There is no doubt that the liberal democracies emerged victorious at the end of the Cold War. As Francis Fukuyama coherently pointed out in his analysis of the “End of History,” the communist empire didn’t collapse solely due to its economic scarcity and its inability to meet the elementary material needs of its citizens. More significantly, the system systematically discredited the self-confidence, the personal identity of the citizens. The individual counted for nothing. The person received no respect. The human being was given no recognition. It was enough to have an identity as a communist, a Soviet citizen. Having your own personality, on the other hand, was viewed as subversive and undermining the state, although this stance was not unique to the Soviet dictatorship.

Mass society has always considered personal identity to be at odds with cultural identity. Cultural identity and personal identity are a contradiction like conformity and distinctness, and this dilemma has once again overwhelmingly taken center stage nowadays. Regardless of whether it concerns left-liberal identity politics or the neoconservative attempt to invoke an “irrefutable nostalgia,” as the American economist and political scientist Mark Lilla calls it, the result engenders people who think and act like Zelig, individuals who, according to Karasek, believe they can only maintain their identity by practicing self-denial.

At this juncture, it is interesting to call to mind the simple yet compelling hierarchy of needs model published by the American social psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943. In order to illustrate the hierarchy, Maslow devised a pyramid of human needs, with “physiological needs” occupying the wide base and containing everything we need for survival and self-preservation. After this “basic need” that must be permanently satisfied comes the need for safety, which essentially involves controlling the environment. The formation of identities already plays a key role here. In order to be “safe” – in other words, acquire certainty or merely a feeling of certainty – a person must be prepared to explain or understand the world. There is a problem here, however.

Does every attempt at differentiation have to be followed by exclusion?

That’s because the need for safety always favors the existing – the known – over the new and unknown. In the identity debate, this would preferably be the very “nostalgia” that Lilla talks about, the supposed “good old times” when everything was “all right.” We live in an age of profound technological and organizational transformation, characterized by a long-term transition from the old mass society of industry to the personalized world of the knowledge economy. Globalization and digitalization are aspects of this change. It is clear that safety needs are seriously challenged here. This level can quickly slip into the compulsive realm anyway. Maslow suggested that people who primarily dwell on this second step of the pyramid often suffer from compulsive orderliness. Surprises and innovations should quickly be mitigated by rules. The new is seen as a threat to the status quo. It is kind of like a compulsion to wash, which fuels the illusion that the world and its affairs can be controlled down to the smallest detail. This only becomes clear, however, when the third step of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, the social level, is also examined. This concerns the entirety of our relationships with one another – the question of what and who we identify with. Severe uncertainty and the desire for control on the second level inevitably lead to those terms that thrive in the context of the contemporary identity crises: “a sense of togetherness,” “team spirit,” “community.”

When put into perspective, this group cohesion is all the stronger, the bigger the contrast with a competing group appears to be. It’s not just every nation that needs an enemy, but also every team, every community, and every well-intentioned group. The idea that identities, ambiguities peacefully coexist next to each other still requires a great deal more development, it must be cautiously noted.

The political scientist Hendrik Gast has suggested that it is primarily the “less able, uncertain members of a group, those who have been socialized into authoritarian ways of thinking and have few other career options […] who are especially seduced by the sense of togetherness.” They try to compensate for a lack of self-confidence by adopting a cultural identity. By no means do they have to fit the cliché of the “modernization loser” – even academics whose qualifications are not particularly in demand on the employment market tend to want to make up for a lack of self-confidence. There are fewer and fewer differences between declassed industrial workers, who fear being replaced by robots and algorithms, and taxi-driving sociologists.
But that’s not all.

The movement toward standardization then represents identity and integration.

The identity crisis in the form of self-doubt also gnaws away at the foundations of classic organizations, whether companies or institutions. A seemingly unsuspicious example of this is the practice of corporate identity, which has been booming for years. It is designed to ensure that a company’s image is consistent as well as to establish a kind of official corporate language. In other words, it is a standardization tool, but not only in areas where such standardization is desirable – in the distinctive nature of the design and business objective, for instance. In practice, CI is often also seen as a means of eliminating differences in the way people think and act. This is paradoxical. Instead of viewing diversity as a resource and something to be valued, as would be fitting in the knowledge economy, a narrow corridor is created that leaves hardly any intellectual room to maneuver.

The movement toward standardization then represents identity and integration, the spirit of the old industrial age. This is in natural conflict with that which Maslow has place on the fourth level of his pyramid: the individual needs, the desire for recognition, distinctness and care of the person, for esteem and appreciation. Incidentally, these are the agents that led to the emergence of identity politics, but also – and this is part of the paradox – very easily lead to new “iron cages,” as described by Max Weber, from which there is no escape without harm. They effectively prevent the development of and fundamental engagement with the very thing that is urgently needed in a world and economy conscious of its complexity and plurality – the self, the individual person, the personal identity. Self-actualization, as Abraham Maslow’s fifth (and highest) level is known, is actually a very simple matter. Maslow describes it thus: “What a man can be, he must be” in terms of his skills, talents, desires, and highly strong-willed needs.

Truly liberal thinking takes place on this level, which cannot exist by resorting to rehashed concepts of the past – neither in “nostalgia” nor in an invocation of the identitarian society based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s model and his general will. It always leads to unfreedom, as Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper have conclusively shown.

It’s about our own skin. Shouldn’t we take that seriously?

The question of personal and cultural identity will continue to demand a great deal from us. But everything is at stake here. It’s about the outcome of the Enlightenment, the liberation of the individual from their fate. It’s about our own skin. Shouldn’t we take that seriously?

Open societies need universal core values of human rights and humanism, as demanded by Francis Fukuyama. This is something that affects everyone and for which everyone is prepared to advocate. Let us consider such things soberly without any pathos whatsoever. We should imagine these values as tools with which we can escape the iron cage of already written biographies – the new fate. It is not possible to run open societies with the logic of closed institutions. Plurality in unity means nothing more than allowing everyone to live the life that suits them – without feeling in opposition to the rest.

A look at the economy may help here. A complex organization consists of specialists whose skills become worthless if they are no longer able to talk to other specialists. Talking brings people together. A common language is needed for this. Those who wish to understand themselves must embrace joined-up thinking. Bubbles lead nowhere. Least of all to oneself.

[1] Karasek, H., Der Spiegel, 40/1983: “Menschliches Chamäleon”. October 3, 1983”

[2] Charles Krauthammer: “Beyond The Cold War”, The New Republic, December 19, 1988

Original in German.
Translated into English by Wieners & Wieners.

This text is published under the Creative Commons License: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. The name of the author/rights holder should be mentioned as followed. Author: Wolf Lotter / erstestiftung.org. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: © Carson Arias / Unsplash.com